or Ethical or Moral Relativism
Cultural relativism: History
• View opposed to moral realism
• Plato: Protagoras – ‘Man is the measure of all
• 19th Century: Nietzsche.
• 20th Century: Anthropologists such as Franz
• 1950s on: Quine
• Late 60s on: Post-Structuralists, post-Colonial
Descriptive v.s. Normative relativism
• Descriptive: there are different moral codes in
– It is a matter of fact that this is the case
– Descriptive relativism = key conceptual tool of
• Normative: there can only be different moral
– It is a matter of principle that this is the case.
– ‘It is a norm that there are only different norms…’
Cultural relativism: Meaning
• The belief that there is no moral truth
that applies to all peoples at all times
• ..as there are no absolute moral
standards for moral judgement.
• ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’.
• Consequence: between cultures (and
the same cultures at different times),
there could be wide moral variance.
– e.g. Greece BC 220 slavery is OK; Greece
AD 2011 slavery is not OK
– Papua New Guinea: Cannibalism is okay in
some tribes; Great Britain, less so;
– Aztec human sacrifice vs European
CR: tightening the definition
• Not egoism or subjectivism (‘man’ = people or cultural group,
• It is not each person, but each person's culture that is the
standard by which actions are to be measured.
– Societies have structure, including ethical standards. This is
what makes them work.
– There are common ethical practices within a society, which guide
– Laws and rules provide stability and order in life. But they are
relative to a given culture.
– Laws and rules have historical origins, so are not absolute.
• Consequence: no ethical system is better than any other.
They are just different.
– So: Why do as Romans, when in Rome?
Protagorean Relativism (= Relationalism?)
‘Man is the measure of all things’
‘I know of many things, — meats, drinks,
medicines, and ten thousand other things,
which are inexpedient for man, and some
which are expedient ; and some which are
neither expedient nor inexpedient...take, for
example, manure, which is a good thing
when laid about the roots of a tree, but
utterly destructive if thrown upon the shoots
and young branches ; or I may instance
olive oil, which is mischievous to all plants,
and generally most injurious to the hair of
every animal with the exception of man, but
beneficial to human hair and to the human
• Ontological relativist
• Remember conceptual
• What follows about Truth,
given the (logical)
Williard Van Orman Quine
Often was heard to whine:
"From a logical point of view,
No translation will do."
According to W. V. Quine
Any ontology's fine
And that's why I
Think he's a heckgavagai.
“As an empiricist I continue to think of
the conceptual scheme of science as a
tool…Physical objects are conceptually
imported into the situation as
convenient intermediaries not by
definition in terms of experience, but
simply as irreducible posits
comparable, epistemologically, to the
gods of Homer …in point of
epistemological footing, the physical
objects and the gods differ only in
degree and not in kind. Both sorts of
entities enter our conceptions only as
Quine’s ‘Confirmation Holism’
The point that Quine is making is that
the existence of both physical objects
and the Homeric Gods is
‘underdetermined’ – the evidence,
strictly speaking, doesn’t quite stack
up that either of these objects exist.
Their existence is supported
holistically by elements of cultural
practice, that’s all – beliefs cohere into
belief-systems or cultural posits.
Hence, one cannot test a scientific
hypothesis in isolation, because an
empirical test of the hypothesis
requires auxiliary assumptions or
And these assumptions cannot all be
Which square is darker, A or B?
No. They are the same colour.
This is Edward Adelson’s 1995 ‘Checkerboard Illusion’. Adelson is Professor
of Vision Science at MIT.
• promotes tolerance, not ‘ethnocentrism’.
– recognises differences but does not judge them by some
measure outside the culture in question.
– reminds us that our way and what is familiar cannot be assumed
to be the right and only way.
– ‘Live and Let Live’ attitude.
• avoids pointless complexity of normative moral debate
• could make morals a matter of persuasion rather than
• explains why similar cultures have similar moral systems
(common roots in culture)
Evidence for CR: Judging others
• There is very wide variance in moral
systems and practices between societies
in different places and at different
boiling lobsters in France
drinking animal blood in the Masai Mara
abortion in the UK but not in Ireland
capital punishment in the US but not in the UK
Infanticide in Ancient Greece but not now
• Yet: if our moral feelings do not originate
from knowledge of an absolute moral
measure, can we judge abhorrent
CR: Some problems
• Surely we do rationally judge abhorrent
– Yet the appeal to rationality might only be an
– Or, alternatively, rational debate might only be a
possibility between cultures that have the language
game ‘rational debate’…
– However (Hume): do ethical norms really vary that
• CR = ‘doing what you like’?
– remember: culture isn’t the individual, though…
CR: What is a ‘Culture’?
• Does ‘Culture’ mean ‘National Boundary’ ,
– Easy to define in monocultural nations: Bhutan,
North Korea, Lithuania
– …harder to define in multicultural nations…
• Do we have a ‘National Culture’ in Britain?
– Could there be a ‘metaculture’, a culture of
– …shared values even so?
• Culture Culture clashes and ‘Culture Wars’
• Culture vs. subcultures…the example of Russian
CR: Coherence issue
• Is C.R self contradictory, incoherent?
– P1 ‘There is no absolute truth’
– P2 ‘Intolerance is wrong’
• Consequence: Tolerant intolerance! Absolute
Example: A culture has an intolerant world view!
But CR:‘We must be tolerant’
Hence‘intolerance is wrong!’
Self-contradiction: affirms two mutually exclusive
things at the same time!
– [But: could reply that
CR: Liberalism and
• How far does toleration
(presumed consequence of
• How should we act in
relation to another culture
that is certain of its moral
correctness, if its morality
enjoins intolerance and
• Can we legitimately be
intolerant of intolerance?
CR: Can we speak of ‘Progress’?
• If CR is true, what basis do we have for
calling for the end of racism, torture,
genocide, child labour?
• Such an appeal would be intolerant,
• If moral truth is culturally relative
– we cannot appeal to universal human rights!
– Since there are no moral absolutes…
– …so surely a relativist cannot argue on
moral grounds that slavery should be
– Also: we cannot call our present lack of
CR: Is its flexibility a strength?
• Yet we no longer have slavery
in the West
– So change did occur
• because there was intracultural
moral argument against it.
• Other drivers (e.g. Marxian
economic ones) might explain
• We know more, also…
– So cultures aren’t ‘monolithic’
• there can be debate
• and this flexibility could be
presented as a strength...
• Cultures/morals do change over
time, for reason we can
CR: How does ‘progress’ occur?
• Don’t we want to say that now is better than then?
• Yet without absolutes, can there be moral progress?
• However, moral relativism might not imply scientific
– So morals could be culturally relative.
– But facts might not be.
• So as our grasp of facts changed…
– …our underlying moral reasoning might alter
– e.g. facts about animal minds might change our view of our
treatment of animals.
– e.g. facts about non-Europeans might lessen our ability to be
• Who?: "Man is the measure of all things:
of things which are, that they are, and of
things which are not, that they are not.“
• Explain: normative relativism,
abhorrence, subjectivism, ethnocentrism,
cultural imperialism, tolerance,
0 7 Cultures make different judgements
about what is right and what is wrong and so
there can be no moral truth. Discuss. (50